Sex: The Chinese perspective

Sex: The Chinese perspective

Hong Kong academic Katrien Jacobs is about to publish her first book on Chinese people's views of pornography and sexual identity
Katrien Jacobs
Katrien Jacobs

Katrien Jacobs is writing a book about pornography in China. The research process sounds stressful.

Jacobs describes an experiment in which she and a group of her students went to a Starbucks coffeehouse in Shenzhen to search for sexually explicit media on the Internet. The aim was to see what they could access through mainland China’s Great Firewall.

“I was more scared than my students were,” admits Jacobs who is a professor of visual culture studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We were there for 30 minutes and we found all this porn using an Internet connection in a public space.”

Pornography has been officially banned in China since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. Harsh punishments are imposed on those caught purchasing, producing or distributing materials considered a violation of public morality.

According to Jacobs’ new study, however, subcultures of user-generated or DIY pornography have evolved on the Internet as a result. As her title "People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet" suggests, the trend has wider implications for Beijing’s ongoing struggle to control the flow of information through new media.

Although Jacobs claims that the response to her work has been positive overall, there is no doubt that taboos die hard in a restricted society. She hints that some reactions have been nasty even in Hong Kong, which is protected by freedom of expression laws that survived the handover from British colonial rule.

Jacobs' parting statement to me says it all: “I hope people treat you well after this article comes out."

CNNGo: So what is your book about?

Katrien Jacobs: It’s about how people in China are using pornography to formulate sexual identities on the Internet.

It’s also about how these new stirrings are being suppressed by the Chinese government because they’re thought of as part of a larger movement for political autonomy and freedom of speech.

CNNGo: How far along is that movement, in your opinion?

Jacobs: It’s getting worse in some sense. Ever since June 4, 1989 there hasn’t been a lot of officially acknowledged people’s power. So it’s hard to know what these stirrings mean and how far they can go before they are silenced.

Many of the people I write about in my book are bloggers whose work is being actively monitored. I think if you know you’re being watched all the time, you have to be extremely brave or crazy to continue.

CNNGo: Could you define "people’s pornography"?

Jacobs: Basically, it’s DIY media that exists outside the [commercial] sex industry. For example, a lot of women post stories, confessional diaries or soft-core images.

People from the post-1980s and post-1990s generations have started uploading sex movies as well. There is also the idea that people should have access to pornography in general, without the threat of prosecution.

CNNGo: How does this relate to the quest for civil liberties in China?

Jacobs: One part is that we need to develop an official sex industry, so that it can be regulated above ground.

The other part is that people should be able to use pornographic texts and images to express their identities. People should have the freedom to pursue pleasure and to define themselves sexually.

CNNGo: What was your motivation for writing this book?

Jacobs: I wasn’t sure that I could tackle this topic here, because I don’t speak Chinese and I’m a foreigner to this culture.

But when I started teaching my students about pornography, they really appreciated the discussion and enjoyed what I showed them. I saw there was a vacuum here for this kind of book and I thought I should probably be the one to try and write it.

CNNGo: Why now?

Jacobs: In 2009, when I started the book, the Chinese government was planning to install Green Dam software on all computers [to identify and ban pornographic material on the internet].

The proposal was attacked by activists, so the government had to revise their plans. I had a sense that people really had the power to criticize the government. I wanted to see where that movement came from and where it would go.

Right now the crackdown on dissidents is much stricter. It goes in waves. I don’t think the government has changed its mind about repressing people’s sexuality, but I think people’s awareness is growing.

CNNGo: How do attitudes towards sex differ between Hong Kong and mainland China?

Jacobs: People in Hong Kong recognize Western discourses [on sexuality] more but they are still extremely shy about participating, almost squeamish.

On the mainland people are often more open to expressing themselves. I think Hong Kongers are repressed, actually.

CNNGo: Why do you think that is?

Jacobs: People who are interested in sex seem to be stigmatized here. To have a good sex life is not an important value in Hong Kong.

CNNGo: Did any of your findings in this study shock you?

Jacobs: It was more depressing than shocking to see just how prevalent the image of the underage submissive woman is in the Chinese [male] sexual identity. In reality most women are not like that, so it has become a very strong fantasy.

It’s disturbing to me because I’ve always believed that people naturally have diversified tastes, but here men seem to fixate on [infantilized women] and real women don’t challenge it.

CNNGo: Is it up to women to challenge it?

Jacobs: It’s up to them to offer an alternative. 

Women as a whole want sexual stimulation too, so if they can’t deal with this one-sided body image then it’s up to them to say so and to formulate new interests and desires.

I understand why porn offends feminist women, but I’m more inclined to be proactive about changing it rather than stopping it.

People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet will be published by Intellect Books this fall. For updates, visit Katrien Jacobs' blog at

Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese